Friday, March 02, 2012

Google goes stupid

Yesterday, at work, I was using Google Image Search to try to find an example of a particular kind of scientific figure. I wanted a figure where any variable has been measured over ages from early in life to late in life, and where the data are U shaped (start out high, go down, then go back up) but where someone had fit a simple linear regression to these data, completely missing the pattern. I see such figures fairly often, but couldn’t remember exactly where. I also wanted examples where they had got it right and fit something other than a straight line.

So I used search terms like: “linear regression” “scatter plot” age and figure. And I got back images of babies, mothers breastfeeding, pornographic images of women (not medical or educational or artistic, despite having Safe Search set at strict) mixed with a smattering of scatter plots, almost all from papers about women’s reproductive health, breast- and cervical-cancer and baby nutrition. None of it was useful to me, and a lot had no apparent link to any of my search terms. What was going on?

At the same time at home, my wife was reading a Blogger hosted blog on women’s reproductive health and baby-care. She was using my laptop and was still signed into gmail as me. Blogger is owned by Google. Yesterday was the first day of Google’s new policy of sharing information about users of any of its services with any of its other services to help to personalize search results and the ads it shows. I was looking for figures. My wife was reading about women, their reproductive health, and their babies. I got images of babies, women’s figures and reproductive parts, and scientific figures plotting data on same. If I was interested in scatter plots related to breast-cancer, I would include “breast-cancer” in my search terms. Yesterday, I logged out of my Google account in order to get decent results from Google. This is not helpful for Google or for me.

There has been a big kerfuffle about the lack-of-privacy implications of this new policy. People say that Google is becoming Facebook, a sinister ploy to know more about you than you do. I am sympathetic to those complaints, but not particularly worried about them for my own sake. My main complaint isn’t that the new policy is evil (i.e., Facebookish), but that it is stupid (i.e., Microsoftian), in that it makes Google’s core product, Search, less useful. Google is forgetting what Microsoft has never figured out: Too many functions doing things for you detracts tremendously from the functionality of the software. If I want to sit down at a new computer and use Word, I don’t want to first have to individually turn off all twelve parts of Autocorrect and 75 other things that will change my document for me in undesirable ways. And if I want to search for something, I don’t want terms I haven’t inserted invisibly added to my search. To have the algorithm decide to include terms from a blog that I (or anyone logged into the same account) read in my search takes control away from me, and then I have to fight against the algorithm to find what I want (or, heaven forefend, use Bing). It’s like having a car that tries to drives you to a restaurant of its choice every time anyone in the car, or on the radio, mentions food. You drive because you have to, but after the tenth visit to that terrible restaurant, you wish you could just walk.

The Google–becoming-Facebook complaints are surely in part a reference to Google’s relatively new social network site, Google+. But here again, it feels to me more like Google-becoming-Microsoft. My complaint stems from their push to drive every possible bit of traffic to Google+, even if this makes their other products harder to use. Microsoft similarly tried (before being ordered otherwise by the courts) to so thoroughly integrate Internet Explorer into Windows that you basically couldn’t use one without the other. Google seems to be trying to do the same with all their products and Google+. The‘Photos’ link used to take me to my photos on Picasa. This was helpful. Now it takes me to the recent photos that people in my circles have uploaded to Google+. This is not generally useful, and makes it harder to get to my pictures. On pretty much all their products the Share button (which used to take me directly to the option to email or link to an item) now opens a window asking me to post whatever it is on Google+, making it harder to share whatever it is with the vast majority of people I communicate with through other means. I understand that Google wants me to communicate with all of them only through Google+, but as that is never going to happen, designing a product that assumes it has already happened is stupid. There are quite a few of these small things that don’t make a big difference in and of themselves, but take Google’s products, which have traditionally been beautifully designed and implemented one step closer to things I use because I have to. And once you are into “use because I have to” territory, you are Microsoftian.

1 comment:

GreenEngineer said...

I think the prevalence of this problem (as well as the overwhelming number of choices within a narrow range of options among consumer products) is a natural consequence of the mandate for constant growth.

Companies are specifically disallowed from resting on their laurels. It's not just bad for stock price; it's treated almost as being a moral violation of their mandate. But when you have a good product, which serves a need, sometimes you just need to stop futzing with it.

Google got that for awhile. while they were in extreme growth mode, they were growing in lots of different directions. They did a lot of things that didn't work out, but the cross-platform impact was minimal. Now they're trying to sustain that growth rate, while focusing on a "unified" set of offerings. It's almost inevitable that the quality of their product will degrade as a result. Because the goal is not actually improving the consumer experience. The goal is to GROW, as an end in itself.